IDSA COMMENT

Japan Coping with a National Calamity

March 16, 2011

The devastating earthquake measuring 9-magnitude that hit eastern Japan on March 11 and the accompanying tsunami have caused incalculable damage to Japan’s economy, infrastructure and the psyche of its people. It is too early to fathom the scale of the human tragedy and the physical devastation. Prime Minister Kan Naoto has called this event the nation’s darkest hour since World War II.

Japan is known for its tsunami-causing earthquakes. It is located where several continental and oceanic plates meet in the Pacific Ocean. The shifting of these plates causes earthquakes, followed by tsunamis.

The damage caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami has been relatively less compared to past quakes in Japan. This is because of the development of earthquake-resistant technology used in building construction as well as early-warning systems. Last week’s quake was bigger than the Great Hanshin quake, which devastated Kobe in 1995 killing 6,000 people, and the Great Kanto Quake of 1923 which had left 140,000 people dead. This time, when the quake struck, Japan was shaken for a continuous four minutes, followed by two aftershocks of 2-3 minutes durations within the next 40 minutes. Within minutes of the news of the quake, life came to a standstill: the metro stopped in Tokyo, the airport and markets were closed and Prime Minister Kan called an emergency Cabinet meeting to address the national tragedy.

When the quake struck a large modern area to the east of Sendai, more than 6,500 people were instantly killed. The tsunami triggered by the quake swamped Sendai’s coast, picking up cars, ships and houses as it furiously surged three miles inland. The quake’s epicentre was 80 miles offshore of Sendai and 24 miles below the surface of the sea bed. The tsunami was as high as 10 metres or over 30 feet in some places. The tsunami was, however, relatively smaller than others in history. Five of the worst tsunamis were: (a) the 1883 Krakatoa tsunami in Indonesia which sent a 130-feet-high wave surging across the Indian Ocean and killed 36,500 people; (b) the 1498 tsunami in Japan triggered by a 8.6-magnitude earthquake which sent a 56-feet-high wave killing 31,000 people; (c) the 1755 Lisbon tsunami caused by a massive 9-magnitude quake in the Atlantic Ocean was 400-feet-high and killed 60,000 people; (d) the 1908 Messina tsunami off the coast of Messina, Italy, which claimed 200,000 lives reducing the city’s population to a few hundreds; and (e) the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which killed over 300,000 people.

The 1995 earthquake ranks among the most economically costly of modern earthquake disasters. At that time all communications, highways, railways, water and other essential infrastructure were destroyed. Over 150,000 buildings were destroyed, and more than 200,000 buildings were damaged. More than 600,000 people were rendered homeless. And the damage to physical capital was a staggering $114 billion or 2.3 per cent of Japan’s GDP at that time. Though it was assessed that it will take at least a decade for Kobe to get back its lost economic glory, Kobe limped back in less than two years following its reconstruction and investment in modernisation. Urban infrastructure was re-engineered and new buildings were insulated against future shocks. The lesson learnt from Kobe was applied to other urban centres as well. Infrastructure engineering in highways, water sewerage, transport and communications, etc, were revamped. The construction of new buildings with quake-resistant technology and the reinforcement of the existing ones helped withstand the violent quake of March 11 to some extent. This was evident to the author and other members of the IDSA delegation which was in Japan when the quake struck. The National Institute of Defence Studies building in Tokyo showed minor cracks, because it was an older building and had not incorporated earthquake-resistant technologies. In contrast, the conference building at Sapporo was unaffected because it was a newer building which had incorporated earthquake-resistant technologies.

Even in the midst of a national calamity on this scale, one saw the calm and poise with which the people of Japan handled the catastrophe. The stoicism and efficiency with which the Japanese applied their human capital and organisational skills in dealing with the situation was remarkable. The way Tokyo sprang back to life and back to business within hours while addressing the new situation says a lot about Japan’s national character.

The Japanese Government and the Self-Defence Forces swung into action quickly. The capacity of Japan’s executive to respond decisively was no longer an issue to be debated. DD Harusume in Yokosuka Bay, which had hosted the IDSA delegation two days before the quake, was quickly dispatched on a rescue mission, as were other Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) teams and ships.

Another worrying aspect of the quake and its aftermath has been the impact on three nuclear power facilities. The Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima nuclear power plant was damaged in the quake, and there is fear about the spread of radiation. Authorities have been forced to evacuate people from a 10 km radius around the site. As a result, electricity supply to Tokyo and to the utility sectors has been affected.

Rescue teams arrived in Japan, from New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and South Korea, within a day of the quake. India, too, has sent two plane loads of blankets and will be sending medical teams to assist Japan in this difficult time. Given the resilience of its people, Japan will emerge stronger yet again from this calamitous event.